'They thought us subversive': Remembering the origins of the radical Belsize Lane Women's Liberation Workshop
PUBLISHED: 10:48 22 September 2018
As the 1960s drew to a close a group of Camden women were in the vanguard of the fight for gender equality. Sam Volpe spoke to members of the Belsize Lane Women's Liberation Workshop about their remarkable deeds.
When, in the late 1960s, the Belsize Lane Women’s Liberation Workshop (BLWLW) emerged after the rapid expansion of a similar Tufnell Park group, its members were acutely aware of the importance of the issues they were fighting for.
From attending the groundbreaking women’s conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, to protesting London’s then-annual Miss World pageant and supporting those arrested because of it, Belsize Lane women were central to stepping up the fight for gender equality.
Last week, members of the workshop, who still meet regularly, showed a rare film that documented the Oxford conference – A Women’s Place – and spoke to an audience at the Camden Archives about their incredible campaigning pasts.
Afterwards, panel member Carol de Jong, 81, told the Ham&High: “They thought we were subversive, really. In fact, in everything we did, we were just fighting for our rights and a fair deal.
“Back then groups like ours had started to spring up – it was 1968, 1969 – largely with a strong north American influence.
“My friend had joined this group in Tufnell Park. And I went along, and that group grew like mad – it just took off.”
Carol became a founding member of the Belsize Lane Women’s Liberation Workshop, which she explained capitalised on a groundswell of politically active and radical women.
“We were all quite active in the Labour movement and the unions; some were councillors. It was natural to get involved in the fight.”
Retired professor Mica Nava was another early member of the BLWLW. She said: “We were relatively unusual even within the movement. We were that bit older – lots of us were mothers.
“Going to the first conference was exciting. It was a revolutionary idea. We all saw ourselves firmly as part of the wider leftist movement of the time, although there was a divide between those of us who were more political and those who came into it as descendants of that kind of 1960s mysticism.”
At the Oxford conference, BLWLW member Sue Crockford even addressed the floor, and attendees included renowned cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was involved in childcare.
For Carol, the group’s achievements almost half a century ago remain powerful.
“I’m very proud,” she said. “The Equal Pay Act was a huge thing. Lots of the group were teachers, for example, and getting that was amazing. Then there was the march on Trafalgar Square – the first women’s march since the suffrage movement.
“The powers that be made it very difficult for us to get to Trafalgar Square that day [in 1971], but the march was hugely successful.
“Then there was the Miss World protests, we went, and then we went and protested outside of the Old Bailey in support of those who were arrested.”
Dr Susan Croft is a generation removed from the workshop. Along with Dr Irene Cockroft, Susan has spent the summer curating the A Stone’s Throw From Westminster exhibition, which celebrates the role of Camden women in the fight for women’s suffrage and the wider women’s rights movements.
Susan told the Ham&High: “Showing the film is a hugely rare event. [Before this] I had never seen it myself. The Belsize Lane group were pioneering, and Camden women generally took a really strong lead in the women’s movement.”
The women also explained the BLWLW were hugely concerned with practical battles for women.
Mica said: “The nursery was a big idea. Back in 1972 an essay I wrote was in the Body Politic, it was about women and the family. It’s something we were all so concerned with. The idea of not having to choose between work and family.”
The Body Politic was a collection of “writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement” compiled by Michelene Wandor.
Looking back, Carol de Jong’s pride is tempered by today’s fraught political climate.
She added: “Those of us still around still meet.
“We’ve still got things to talk about and there’s still things to struggle for.”
The A Stone’s Throw From Westminster exhibition has been extended until October 6 at the Camden Archives in Holborn. Wednesday and Thursday next week will see SuffrageArts reading two suffrage theatre scripts at Clean Break in and the archives.